Big but not easy

Jeff vonKaenel

I recently went on an intensive, four-day study mission to New Orleans with about 79 other Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce members. Believe me, there was a lot to learn from our brothers and sisters who are still recovering from one of the country’s biggest disasters: Hurricane Katrina. While we were there, they repeatedly referred to the damage of Hurricane Katrina as a man-made Army Corps of Engineers disaster.

While we do not have hurricanes here in Sacramento, we do have rivers, levees and, according to the Army Corps of Engineers, the most vulnerable river system in the country. In New Orleans, we saw how the consequences of a levee break could be disastrous.

Our visit began with a bus tour of the lower Ninth Ward. Even after six years have passed, and even after billions of federal dollars have been spent to fix up the damaged city, you could still see and feel the devastation.

I can tell you that all of us on the study mission became much more interested in flood protection after touring New Orleans. But the trip, brilliantly set up by the amazing chamber staff and the committee led by Maggie Townsley and Patrick Mulvaney, also showed us the story of recovery in New Orleans. A story of extreme bravery, courage and resilience, bolstered by billions of dollars of federal aid.

The levees were not the only thing in need of repair. New Orleans had one of the most corrupt political systems in the country. They told us that they also had one of the worst school districts, a steady loss of population and extreme poverty. So we repeatedly heard stories about rebuilding New Orleans with a new vision.

In a dramatic education panel led by Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, we heard from Recovery School District Superintendent John White about a total transformation of the New Orleans school system.

Seventy percent of the schools are now charter schools. Most of the original teachers are gone, partly because of the decrease in students and partly because of the effort to find younger, more qualified teachers. The result has been a remarkable transformation of the school system, with dramatic increases in students’ test scores. While the New Orleans situation is unique, it does raise important questions for us to consider here.

Eighty of us, including several public officials, went to New Orleans to learn from that community’s experience. The Sacramento Bee has questioned whether public funds should be spent to send elected officials on these study missions. After this visit, I feel that our understanding of critical life-and-death community issues was enhanced. I believe that the Bee’s understanding would have been enhanced as well, had they attended. My question now is: Can we come together as a community to make change without a levee break, or are we destined for a story of recovery, too?

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.